Saturday, October 4, 2014


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Glenn Gould
Index name: Gould, Glenn
Pronunciation: glehn goold
Full name: Glenn Herbert Gould
Also known as: Glenn Gold
Nationality: Canadian
Musical identity: Classical pianist

Born: September 25, 1932; Toronto, Canada
Died: October 4, 1982; Toronto, Canada

Influence: Gould was one of the best-selling and most controversial solo classical instrumentalists of the twentieth century.  A prodigiously gifted pianist and multi-media communicator, he re-awoke interest in long-neglected composers and advanced aesthetic and philosophical theories that, while initially dismissed as eccentric, have come to be seen as prophetic of the potential for technology to enhance the performance of serious music.  

The Life: Glenn Gould (glehn goold) was born “Glenn Gold” to Russell and Florence Gold and was their only child.  (The most likely reason that the family changed “Gold” to “Gould” was to avoid being mistaken for Jews during a time of heightened anti-Semitism; the Golds were actually Scottish.)  His mother was a piano teacher who traced her lineage to the Romantic Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and whose efforts at acquainting young Gould with the piano identified him early on as the possessor of a photographic memory, superior digital dexterity, and perfect pitch.  

At seven, Gould won a competition sponsored by the Toronto Conservatory.  By the age of ten, he was studying with the Chilean pianist and conductor Alberto Guerrero and rapidly mastering a large body of compositions from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic repertoires.  Three years later, he performed as a featured soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  

In the decade that followed, his combination of talent and odd performance mannerisms (humming loudly, conducting himself, adopting odd performance postures) made him a musical celebrity in Canada.  It was, however, his January 11, 1955, concert at Town Hall in New York City on January 11, 1955, that earned him a contract with Columbia Records.  

Gould’s Columbia debut, a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was an immediate bestseller and launched him on a grueling, worldwide performing schedule.  Nine years and more than 250 concerts later, he stunned his audience by abandoning the concert stage altogether and devoting himself to perfecting his art in the recording studio where, he insisted, he could achieve ideal performances by splicing together the best of multiple takes.  

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gould’s retreat from the stage did not negatively affect his record sales, in part because Gould used his newly acquired free time to embark upon a career in radio, television, and journalism that kept him in the public eye.  From 1967 to 1975, he recorded the three celebrated and influential “contrapuntal radio” documentaries that have come to be known collectively as The Solitude Trilogy.  

Such “extracurricular” projects notwithstanding, Gould continued to record music at an exhaustive pace, slowing down only during the mid-1970s to combat mysterious illnesses that hindered his playing.  A lifelong hypochondriac, Gould relied on a heavy regimen of prescription drugs that, along with his punishing work ethic, most likely contributed to the stroke that he suffered on September 27, 1982, and from which he died one week later, nine days after his fiftieth birthday.

Musical Career 
Although Gould’s musical career was by no means limited to his recordings and performances, it was as a pianist that he made his considerably charismatic presence most felt.  While he lived, he was nearly as infamous for his eccentricities and iconoclastic approach to venerated composers (particularly Mozart and Beethoven) as he was famous for his prolific and excellent musicianship.  Since his death, however, both his recordings and his bringing the works of neglected or misunderstood composers to his audience (which was the broadest of any classical solo instrumentalist) have emerged as not only his greatest contributions but also some of the greatest contributions of any classical performer of the twentieth century.  

Best known for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach and Arnold Schoenberg (the two composers whose intellectually rigorous and unromantic sensibilities, although chronological separated by two hundred years, best reflected his own), Gould also recorded music from the repertoires of Franz Joseph Haydn, Alban Berg, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Edvard Grieg, William Byrd, George Frideric Handel, Georges Bizet, Richard Wagner, Paul Hindemith, Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius, Alexander Scriabin, Ernst Krenek, Jean Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Barbara Pentland.  Somewhat surprisingly, given how little he recorded of his music, Gould claimed that his favorite composer was the Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons.  He also recorded on the organ (the instrument on which he first played in public at the age of twelve) and the harpsichord.

Long credited with discovering and perfecting his meticulously tactile approach to the piano, Gould actually adapted techniques that he had absorbed from the recordings of the pianists Artur Schnabel and Rosalyn Tureck and from his years as a student of Alberto Guerrero.  That he remained frustrated in his often stated intention to become a great composer and conductor was apparently of consequence only to himself.

Bach, Goldberg Variations.  Gould’s debut, recorded in 1955 and released in 1956, caused an instant sensation and rapidly became a best-seller.  Perpetually in print, it was re-released several times by Sony Classical in the years following Gould’s death, both alone and paired with Gould’s 1981 re-recording.  In 2006 it became the template for the first of the Zenph Studios’ “re-creations” when, before an audience of Gould’s friends and colleagues, a specially prepared Yamaha piano “performed” the piece in response to a computerized encoding of Gould’s original performance.    

Brahms, 10 Intermezzi.  For all of his deeply rooted anti-Romanticism, Gould was surprisingly receptive to these pieces by Brahms, which he recorded in 1959 and 1960 with a sensitivity born of a genuine and intimate affection. 

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-minor, Op. 15.  On April 5, 1962, Gould performed this staple of the Romantic repertoire with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  Gould’s radically un-Romantic re-interpretations of Brahms’ well-known tempi, although hesitantly agreed to by Bernstein (who admired Gould’s intelligence and respected his instincts), provoked considerable turmoil among critics and audience members alike and became for years the most cited example of Gould’s audacity.  

Gould, String Quartet, Op. 1.  What was to be the first of what Gould hoped would be many of his original compositions turned out to be his last as well.  Recorded in 1960 with the Symphonia String Quartet, it elicited kind if generally unenthusiastic reviews.  The most common complaint was that its multitude of musical ideas was ultimately unfocused.   

Bach, The Art of Fugue, Vol. 1: Contrapunctus 1-9.  Gould made the majority of this recording in 1962 on a Casavant organ housed in Toronto’s All Saints’ Church.  Like the twelve piano recordings that preceded it, his sole organ recording was miked so as to emphasize both the precision of his playing and his objection to the typical organ record’s reverberant sonorities.  In part because the Casavant, whose Baroque-sensitive registration he loved, was destroyed in a fire, he never recorded The Art of the Fugue, Vol. 2.

Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier.  Gould recorded both books of Bach’s monumentally influential keyboard work in six volumes between 1962 and 1971.  Together with his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, they represent the fullest musical articulation of Gould’s deeply rooted appreciation for the composer whose compositions he recorded more than any other.  

Beethoven, Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major ("Emperor").  This 1966 recording would prove to be unique in Gould’s oeuvre for two main reasons.  First, it found him giving an eccentricity-free performance of a well-known composition.  Second, it would be his only performance with an orchestra under the baton of his hero, the conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Schoenberg: The Complete Music for Solo Piano: Opp. 11, 19, 23, 25, and 33. Released in 1966, Gould’s recordings of these profoundly influential twentieth-century “twelve-tone” pieces reinvigorated the always-tenuous willingness of listeners to give them a fair hearing. 

A Consort of Musicke Bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons.  This Tudor-music album, recorded in 1967-1968 and 1971, represents Gould’s only documented excursion into the music of his “favorite composer,” Orlando Gibbons.

Schoenberg: Complete Songs for Voice and Piano, Opp. 3, 6, 12, 14, 48, and Op. posth.  Together with his recording of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben with Roxolana Roslak, these performances, recorded between 1964 and 1971, capture not only Gould’s sympathetic love of Schoenberg but also his capacity for providing sympathetic accompaniment (in this case to the singers Helen Vanni, soprano; Cornelius Opthof, baritone; and Donald Gramm, bass-baritone). 

Handel, Suites, Nos. 1-4.  For someone who loved the harpsichord so much that he insisted his pianos be tuned to replicate its dry precision as closely as possible (a demand that drove Steinway’s, and later Yamaha’s, tuners nearly mad), Gould recorded very little on the instrument.  He also recorded very little Handel, a fact that makes this 1972 recording doubly valuable. 

Hindemith, Das Marienleben,  Gould’s 1976-1977 recording of the original 1923 version of Hindemith‘s song cycle based on the life of Mary was released in 1978 and featured not only the exquisite soprano singing of Roxolana Roslak but also Gould‘s extensive and critically acute liner notes, which concluded with his declaration that Das Marienleben was the finest song cycle ever composed. 

Posthumous releases.  Sony Classical (formerly Columbia, later CBS, Masterworks) went to great lengths to keep Gould’s recordings in circulation after his death, repackaging them mainly in the Glenn Gould Edition and the Glenn Gould Anniversary Edition series.  The most conceptually original and consistent compilation was 2003’s Glenn Gould: ... and Serenity, which brought together the most “serene” recordings from the entire spectrum of Gould’s discography. 

Musical Legacy 
It has been said that Gould was more popular after his death than he was while he lived.  Unlike many artists of whom such a statement has been made, however, Gould also enjoyed immense popularity during his lifetime.  Indeed, the escalating sales of his many posthumously repackaged recordings were merely a continuation of a long-established trend among lovers of Gould’s music.

Gould’s notoriously reclusive tendencies notwithstanding, he was open to collaborations with musicians (the Julliard Quartet, the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, the violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Israel Baker, the cellist Leonard Rose), singers (the operatic sopranos Helen Vanni and Roxolana Roslak), and conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Golschmann) who shared, or at least tolerated, his often unorthodox interpretations.  Gould demonstrated his generosity in other ways as well, most notably and endearingly in his championing of Leopold Stokowski as the greatest conductor of the twentieth century and one of its most visionary musical geniuses. 

In the years after his death, Gould became the subject not only of several well-written biographies but also of video documentaries and the impressionistic biopic Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (the segments of which were structured along the lines of the thirty-two Goldberg Variations).  In 1988, the National Library of Canada mounted Glenn Gould 1988, a major exhibition made possible by the library’s having acquired a staggeringly vast amount of Gould memorabilia in 1983.  Like every other presentation of practically anything having to do with Gould’s life and music, it attracted a large, enthusiastic, and diverse audience.      

Further Reading
Angilette, Elizabeth.  Philosopher at the Keyboard: Glenn Gould.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.  A fascinating attempt to construct a coherent philosophy of both art and life from Gould’s many writings and otherwise-documented statements.

Bazzana, Kevin.  Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.  The most authoritative Gould biography to date, benefiting from the author’s scholarly understanding of Gould’s repertoire and the subtleties of Gould’s interpretations and from Bazzana's access to people and documents heretofore either inaccessible or under-explored.  Thoroughly examines Gould’s public accomplishments and what is known of his private life, fairly assessing his strengths and weaknesses and convincingly concluding not only that the former outweigh the latter but also that the more sensationalized aspects of Gould’s life have been exaggerated to the detriment of a sober appreciation of his work, its importance, and its enduring popularity.  

Cott, Jonathan; Glenn Gould. Conversations with Glenn Gould. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.  Of value both for the incisiveness of Cott’s questions and for the fact that, unlike many of Gould’s other widely circulated “interviews,” Cott’s were not “ghost scripted” by Gould in advance.  Includes photos and detailed listings of Gould’s recordings and radio and television projects.

Friedrich, Otto.  Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations.  New York: Vintage, 1989.  The first full-scale Gould biography, it remains valuable for the accuracy and detail of its interview-enriched narrative and its painstakingly documented listings of Gould’s concert, studio, radio, and television performances.

McGreevy, John, Ed. Variations: Glenn Gould by Himself and His Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.  A handsome and skillfully edited combination of career-spanning photos and essays, combining the best of Gould’s own writings (“Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould,” “Stokowski in Six Scenes,” “Toronto”) with eloquent, humorous, and touching reminiscences written by Gould’s closest friends and colleagues (Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Bruno Monsaingeon). 

Payzant, Geoffrey. Glenn Gould, Music and Mind. Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter, 2005.  The latest edition of Payzant’s Gould-approved exploration of the aesthetic and philosophical ramifications of his abandonment of the concert stage for the studio and his utilization of “creative cheating” to construct the best musical performances possible in an era of increasing technological sophistication.  


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Leonard Cohen
Index name: Cohen, Leonard
Pronunciation: LEH-nurd, CO-ihn
Full name: Leonard Norman Cohen
Nationality: Canadian
Musical identity: Folk singer and songwriter

Born: September 21, 1934; Montreal, Quebec

Influence: Cohen, having established himself as a poet and a novelist before embarking on a career as a folk singer, wrote lyrics of a uniquely literary depth and emotional sophistication.  Although his albums have sold modestly, his songs remain among those most recorded by other performers, guaranteeing him and the spiritually charged universe he evokes a place in popular music rivaled only by Bob Dylan.           

The Life: Leonard Norman Cohen (LEH-nurd NOR-mihn CO-ihn) was born into one of Montreal’s most prominent Jewish families.  From his mother Masha, the daughter of a scholarly rabbi, he inherited a love of the literary arts.  From his father, a successful clothier who died when Cohen was nine, he inherited a trust-fund that provided him sufficient income to devote himself to his literary and musical interests.  Although he had begun playing the guitar and performing country music while a teenager, it was as a poet that Cohen first distinguished himself, publishing his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, under the auspices of the Canadian modernist poet Louis Dudek in 1956, five years after enrolling at Montreal’s McGill University.  

Let Us Compare Mythologies made Cohen a local celebrity and led to his first recordings: readings of his poetry for an album released by Folkways Records.  His second volume of poetry, The Spice-Box of the Earth, followed in 1961, strengthening and spreading Cohen’s reputation.  By this time Cohen had moved to the Greek island of Hydra, where he would live and work for several years. 

His next work was the semi-autobiographical novel The Favorite Game (1963), in which Cohen, under the pseudonym Lawrence Breavman, traced his life and coming of age.  After another book of poems, Flowers for Hitler (1964), Cohen wrote and published what would become his best-known prose work, the ambitiously experimental and controversially explicit Beautiful Losers (1966).  His fourth volume of poems, Parasites of Heaven, appeared shortly thereafter.  

By the publication of his Selected Poems 1956-1968, Cohen had been “discovered” as a songwriter and performer by the folksinger Judy Collins, who recorded his “Suzanne” (a poem from Parasites of Heaven set to music) to considerable acclaim on her 1966 album, In My Life.

From 1969 to 2004, Cohen released seventeen albums (ten original, three live, and four compilations), published five books (consisting, either totally or in part, of poetry) and was the subject of two video documentaries.  He also advanced the career of his occasional background singer Jennifer Warnes, whose most critically well-received recording, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, appeared in 1986.  

During the 1990s he practiced meditation at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California and was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996.  In 2006 he oversaw the recording of Blue Alert, an album of unpublished Cohen lyrics, by Anjani Thomas, a singer with whom he was romantically involved.

Musical Career 
Although popular musicians have occasionally been known to publish books of poetry or fiction, Cohen is the only poet and novelist to have successfully made the transition from a literary career to a musical one.  Likewise, although popular musicians have been known to undergo religious conversions and in turn reflect these conversions in their work, no other popular musician during the last forty years has so consistently, thoroughly, and unabashedly integrated the traditions, language, and sensibility of his faith into his music as Cohen has.  It is this combination of highly developed literary and religious sensitivities, even more than Cohen's nearly obsessive exploration of the spiritual dimensions of romantic despair, that sets his work apart from that of other serious, verbally gifted performers and that along with his preference for fashion-defying instrumental settings gives it a uniquely timeless quality.         

Songs of Leonard Cohen.  Released in December 1967 at a time when pop music was becoming increasingly ornate, the hauntingly stark acoustic mood of Cohen's debut album established the tone of his first four albums and resulted in his being categorized along with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as part of a “new folk” movement.  Although “Suzanne,” which had been previously covered by Judy Collins, was the album’s best-known track, three others (“Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”) would become official fixtures in the Cohen canon.        

Songs from a RoomEven more sparse sounding than Songs of Leonard Cohen, Cohen’s second album (1969) became a cult classic as much for its unrelenting bleakness as for its inclusion of “Bird on a Wire,” a song that would become Cohen‘s best-known song after “Suzanne” and that, like “Suzanne,” had previously been recorded by Judy Collins.  

Songs of Love and Hate.  Released in 1971 and similar in mood to Songs from a Room, its concluding track “Joan of Arc” joined “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” as an archetype of Cohen’s finding of erotic epiphanies in traditionally religious subject matter and vice versa. 

Live Songs.  Unlike most live albums of its time, this 1973 document of Cohen’s 1970 and 1972 performances in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Tennessee, and the Isle of Wight was not padded with jams and drum solos, enhanced with post-production studio overdubs, or marketed as a surrogate “greatest hits.”   Instead, it captured the extent to which an audience could bring out the performer in Cohen and therefore help transform his songs from solitary meditations into a kind of communal liturgy.        

The Best of Leonard Cohen.  For almost thirty years, this 1975 sampling of Cohen’s first four studio albums was the only remotely comprehensive Cohen compilation.  It remains his best-selling title to date. 

Death of a Ladies' ManFollowing as it did the canon-defining The Best of Leonard Cohen, this 1977 album was scrutinized for indications of the new directions, if any, that Cohen would take during his next phase.  Instead it was an anomaly.  With the legendary “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector at the controls, the album was 180 degrees out of synch with the spare, hushed intensity that had characterized Cohen’s previous recordings.     

Various Positions Because Columbia, unconvinced of the music's commercial potential, refused to release this album, it suffered from the under-promotion inevitable in its being released by the independent Passport Records.  In retrospect, its combination of bare-bones electronics and Cohen’s seductively sinister whisper-singing indicated that he had discovered a sound that would both honor his past and allow him to age gracefully.  The album’s fifth track, “Hallelujah,” would be recorded by more performers than any other post-1970 Cohen composition.  Along with “If It Be Your Will,” it imbued the album with a devotionally religious mood and made it a soundtrack of sorts to Cohen’s 1984 literary collection, Book of Mercy.    

I'm Your Man.  Stylistically similar to Various Positions, this 1988 recording became Cohen’s most celebrated and bestselling album in over a decade, with the video to “First We Take Manhattan” transforming the reclusive Cohen into a presence on MTV. 

The FutureIn the wake of the renewed interest in Cohen created by Various Positions and I’m Your Man, this ambitiously diverse and uncommonly (for Cohen) topical and political 1992 album found an eager audience among the public in general and the Hollywood film directors Oliver Stone, Curtis Hanson, and Alan Parker in particular, who included music from The Future in the soundtracks to Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, and The Life of David Gale respectively.   

Ten New Songs.  A 2001 collaboration with the American singer-songwriter and former Cohen background vocalist Sharon Robinson, who also produced the album.  

Dear Heather.  Like Ten New Songs, this 2004 album found Cohen collaborating with Sharon Robinson.  Unlike Ten New Songs, it also found Cohen collaborating with Anjani Thomas and covering or setting to music everything from “Tennessee Waltz” to the poetry of Lord Byron and Francis Reginald Scott, opening Cohen to charges that, at seventy, he was finally running out of ideas and, perhaps, energy.    

The Essential Leonard Cohen.  This two-disc 2002 compilation judiciously (and democratically) covered the highlights of every Cohen studio album from his debut through Ten New Songs.  

Musical Legacy
The power of Cohen’s music arises in large part from his ignoring of traditional boundaries.  Whether as a poet who wrote novels, a novelist who wrote songs, a Jew who mastered Zen Buddhism, or a religious devotee committed to the exploration of erotic love, he defied the expectations and conventions of his various audiences at every turn, discovering in the process a method for perpetually renewing the timelessness and sacramental appeal of humankind’s most enduring archetypes.  By choosing music as the medium most hospitable to his carefully crafted words, he imbued his notoriously dark meditations with a fragile buoyancy that kept them from succumbing to the downward pull to which the relentlessly serious are particularly vulnerable.  

He also defied the notion that popular music was the exclusive domain of the young or that success was best measured in terms of airplay and album sales.  Already thirty-three years old at the time of his first album’s release, he was from the beginning a kind of elder statesman, a forceful if quiet voice of maturity and reflection in a genre usually identified with prolonged adolescence.  Without ever placing a single in the Billboard Top Forty or selling a million copies of any one of his albums, he created an immensely influential body of work.

From 1971 to 2007, his songs were used in the soundtracks of over twenty films, and the roster of performers who have recorded his songs, which includes Sting, Elton John, the Neville Brothers, and U2, is as varied as it is stellar.

Further Reading:
Cohen, Leonard.  Beautiful Losers.  New York:  Vintage, 1966.  The better known of Cohen’s two novels, notorious at the time of its publication for its explicit depiction of the seamier details of a love triangle among “losers” obsessed with the seventeenth-century saint, Catherine Tekakwitha.

Cohen, Leonard.  Book of Longing.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2006.  Drawings, song lyrics from the Ten Songs and Dear Heather albums, and poems, most of which were composed during Cohen’s 1990’s residence at a California Buddhist monastery.

Cohen, Leonard.  Book of Mercy.  Toronto: McClelland & Stuart Ltd., 1984.  Contemporary psalms and poems in the mystically biblical vein of the lyrics comprising Cohen’s Various Positions album.

Cohen, Leonard.  The Spice-Box of the Earth.  Toronto: McClelland & Stuart Ltd., 1961.  The second and best known of the four volumes of poetry that Cohen published before beginning his career as a recording artist.

Green, Roger.  Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen: A Mid-Life Crisis in the Sun.  New York: Basic Books, 2003.  A quixotic multi-faceted memoir by the British poet Green, using his obsession with Cohen’s life on the Greek island of Hydra and the music that Cohen composed there as a point of departure.

Nadel, Ira Bruce.  Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.  Originally published in 1996, the latest version of this most thorough of the Cohen biographies takes into account Cohen’s recordings through 2006 and benefits from the author’s access both to Cohen’s unpublished writings and to Cohen himself.

Sheppard, David.  Leonard Cohen.  New York: Da Capo, 2000.  An examination of the complex intersection of the religious and the romantic in Cohen’s work.


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Brian Wilson
Index name: Wilson, Brian
Pronunciation: BRI-ihn WIHL-suhn
Full name: Brian Douglas Wilson
Nationality: American
Musical identity: Rock-and-roll composer, singer, bassist, keyboardist, and producer

Born: June 20, 1942; Hawthorne, California

Influence: Wilson combined the intricate vocal harmonies of the Four Freshman, the simplicity and energy of early rock-and-roll, and the “wall-of-sound” production techniques of Phil Spector with lyrics evoking the seductiveness and fragility of youthful utopianism to create one of the most enduring aural and emotional templates in American popular music. 

The Life: Brian Douglas Wilson (BRI-ihn DUG-lihs WIHL-suhn) was the oldest of three musically talented sons born to Murry and Audree Wilson in Hawthorne, California.  A typical middle-class child in many ways, Wilson distinguished himself at an early age with the ability to memorize and recreate the sophisticated jazzy harmonies of his favorite vocal groups.  It was at his insistence that his younger brothers Carl and Dennis and his cousin Mike Love -- three-fifths of the future Beach Boys -- learned to sing the rudiments of what would become Wilson’s trademark Beach Boys vocal arrangements.  

Wilson’s outwardly gregarious nature (he was a popular high-school athlete and a natural leader) masked inner turmoil, particularly a tumultuous relationship with his father.  Wilson himself would later describe his formation and prolific activity on behalf of the Beach Boys as a struggle both to assert his independence and to earn the approval of his father.

From 1963 to 1965, the Beach Boys placed nine songs and eight albums in the top ten.  Finding himself at twenty-two a millionaire responsible for maintaining and continuously improving the nation’s top hit machine, Wilson began to manifest the symptoms of mental illness.  By the time he oversaw the elaborate recording of the group’s seminal Pet Sounds album and “Good Vibrations” single, he had quit touring with the group and begun seeking solace in marijuana and LSD.

Upon his inability to complete the ambitious Smile album, Wilson withdrew from public life and became as famous for his drug and paranoia-fueled eccentricities as he had been for his prodigious and inventive music.  Although nominally a Beach Boy, his contributions to the group’s music dwindled.  

From 1975 to 1985, Wilson was an overweight, often incoherent caricature of his former self.  Even his partial recovery at the hands of the controversial therapist Eugene Landy was scuttled when Landy, largely because of the questionable nature of his treatment of Wilson, was ordered by a medical board to surrender his license to practice in 1989.

Wilson began a genuine personal and professional renaissance in the mid-1990s, marrying his second wife (Melinda Ledbetter) and finding in the Los Angeles rock band the Wondermints and the musical director-guitarist Jeffrey Foskett musicians with whom he could resume not only touring but also recording.  With this ensemble and the help of the lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson finally released a complete version of Smile in 2004, which was released to strong sales and rapturous critical acclaim.  

Musical Career 
Although it was Wilson’s youngest brother Dennis who gave him the idea to write about  the southern-California surfing fad and the other Beach Boys (plus a rotating stable of lyricists) who helped bring his compositions to life, it was Wilson’s inventive combining of 1950s-vocal-group harmony, rock-and-roll, painstaking production, and, in the Beach Boys’ first five years, frequent lead singing that made his songs an indelible fixture in American pop culture.  The California of Wilson’s imagination was less a tourist attraction than a state of mind representing the transient innocence of youth and the tragedy awaiting those who cling to it.  Ironically, it was by clinging to it that Wilson found himself adrift for most of his adult life, depressed by his inability to match the quality or quantity of his early output and emotionally and psychologically depleted by his self-destructive attempts at coping with this failure.  That he continued composing during even his bleakest decades testifies to the durability of his talent; that he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, returning to public performing in the late-1990s and completing his long-unfinished “masterpiece” SMiLE in 2004, testifies both to the durability of his will and to the inspirational power of his music.

Surfer Girl.  The third Beach Boys album (and the second to appear in 1963) was also the first on which Wilson was given production credit.  Although the high-energy hits “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Catch a Wave” were typical beach-crazed anthems, the title song and “In My Room” unveiled the vulnerability, introspection, and harmonic sophistication for which Wilson would ultimately become best known.      

Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!).  The highlight of this 1965 album was “California Girls,” a song that found Wilson achieving creative heights that he wouldn’t surpass until he constructed “Good Vibrations” over a six-month period one year later.   

Pet SoundsMore attention has been paid to this album, the instrumental portions of which Wilson recorded with a studio ensemble in 1966 while the rest of the Beach Boys were on tour, than to any other album in rock-and-roll history.  And it wasn’t even all that rock-and-roll, with some of the music nearly qualifying as “easy listening.”  The Beatles, nevertheless, found it so impressive that they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in an effort to compete.  Confusing though Pet Sounds’ moody tone was to Beach Boys fans at the time, it made the top ten on the strength of the singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Caroline No”--and “God Only Knows,” possibly the most sophisticated and gorgeous song in Wilson’s entire body of work.      

Smiley Smile.  Released in the wake of Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE, this 1967 oddity documented Wilson’s (and the rest of the Beach Boys’) collapse into disarray in general and drugs in particular.  Were it not for its inclusion of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” neither of which would be available elsewhere for years, it undoubtedly would have sold even fewer copies than it did. 

Spring.  Spring (known as “American Spring” in the U.K. to avoid confusion with the British act of the same name) was a female duo consisting of Wilson’s then-wife Marilyn and her sister Diane Rovell.  Their eponymous 1972 album features Wilson’s only serious work as a producer during the early 1970s.  

15 Big OnesAccompanied upon its appearance in 1976 by a massive “Brian’s Back” promotional campaign, this best-selling album consisted largely of covers of 1950s and 1960s hits and was actually a group Beach Boys effort, albeit one that included more participation from Wilson than any other Beach Boys’ album in a decade.    

Love You.  Released in 1977, this album (also known as The Beach Boys Love You) became a cult favorite on the strength of its playfully catchy melodies--in other words, despite the fact that Wilson’s lyrics revealed him to be the dysfunctional eccentric he had long been suspected of being.   

Brian WilsonLavishly produced, this album appeared in 1988 to high praise from most critics.  The masses, however, found the only partially rehabilitated Wilson’s heavily assisted attempt at recapturing his youthful glories cumbersome.

I Just Wasn't Made for These TimesThis 1995 soundtrack to the Don Was-produced documentary of the same name represented an important step in re-introducing Wilson to serious performing and audiences to the finally rehabilitated Wilson.   

SMiLE.  By the time Wilson and his touring Jeffrey Foskett-led Wondermints band recorded this finally completed version of what had been for almost forty years the most famous “lost“ album in rock-and-roll history, they had already become proficient at presenting it on stage.  So it was that what had in 1966 and 1967 been so difficult to construct that Wilson left it unfinished was in 2004 completed with relative ease.  Although there was pre-release apprehension about whether the new SMiLE would live up to the promise of the pieces of the original that had been released pell-mell over the years, the work’s high quality dispelled doubts among fans and critics alike.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was Wilson’s use of Tony Asher’s original lyrics to “Good Vibrations” instead of the Mike Love lyrics with which fans had long been familiar.  

Musical Legacy
Wilson’s impact on American popular music cannot be overestimated.  Besides writing, arranging, and singing and playing on more than two dozen of the rock-and-roll era’s most popular singles and single-handedly launching the surf-music craze, he pioneered a technologically sophisticated style of production that would influence not only the Beatles but a generation of post-1960s acts as well.  Long after Wilson had retreated from public life, echoes of (and in some cases outright homages to) his style and approach could be heard in the recordings of acts as diverse as the Electric Light Orchestra, the Carpenters, Chicago, Todd Rundgren, Three Dog Night, and the Raspberries.  “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the six-minute signature song of the British hard-rock band Queen that became an international top-ten single in both 1976 and 1991, was in many ways a direct descendant of Wilson’s “Good Vibrations,” consisting as it did of several separately recorded and stylistically diverse sections edited together into a dazzling whole.  

Inducted as a Beach Boy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Wilson would, upon his return to mental stability and public performing in the 1990s, become the recipient of other honors as well, including inductions into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (with the Beach Boys) in 1998 and the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.  On December 1, 2007, he was recognized, along with Steve Martin, Leon Fleisher, Martin Scorsese, and Diana Ross, at the prestigious annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony for the excellence of his contribution to the culture of the United States.       

Further Reading: 
Carlin, Peter Ames.  Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.  New York:  Rodale, 2006.  A serious, well-written, and comprehensively researched biography that combines the best of Steven Gaines’ Heroes and Villains (an unflinching examination of Wilson’s psychological, chemical, and familial problems) with the best of Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place (the citing of the westward migration of Wilson’s Midwestern forebears as a metaphor for Wilson’s artistic ambitions) in a briskly moving narrative.  Completed after Wilson’s successful return to the stage as a touring performer and the 2004 release of Smile, Catch a Wave is the only Brian Wilson/Beach Boys book to end on a note of optimism.

Gaines, Steven. Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys.  New York: Da Capo, 1986.  The first book to de-mythologize the Beach Boys by detailing the bandmembers’ real-life turmoil, decadence, and tragedies.  Suffers from a tabloid-like focus on the scandalous that gives short shrift to the music without which the scandals would be of no interest.

Granata, Charles L.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003.  A painstaking, 256-page investigation of the making of what many consider to be Wilson’s finest moment–as a singer, a songwriter, a producer, and a pop cultural force. 

Leaf, David.  The Beach Boys and the California Myth.  New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.  The first extensive treatment of Wilson’s music as significant cultural phenomenon. 

White, Timothy.  The Nearest Faraway Place: The Beach Boys and the Southern California Experience.  New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.  A reasonably well-written and entertaining Wilson/Beach Boys narrative that has been accused of putting too much emphasis on the role played by Wilson’s ancestors in his artistic and temperamental development..

Williams, Paul.  Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: How Deep Is the Ocean?  London: Omnibus Press, 2003.  Several decades’ worth of essays on Wilson and the Beach Boys by the much-published rock critic and the founder of Crawdaddy magazine. 


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Arlo Guthrie
Index name: Guthrie, Arlo
Pronunciation: AR-lo GUHTH-ree
Full name: Arlo Davy Guthrie
Nationality: American
Musical identity: Folk singer and songwriter

Born: July 10, 1947; Coney Island, New York

Influence: Guthrie, as the son of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie and as a performer of his own often whimsically political compositions, came to embody and perpetuate the myth of the troubadour as an archetypal mystic gadfly.  Although identified with the counterculture of the 1960s, Guthrie composed, recorded, and performed into the twenty-first century, increasingly using his popularity as a musician to attract attention to his work on behalf of various charitable social causes.

The Life: Arlo Davy Guthrie (AR-lo DAY-vee GUHTH-ree) was born into a uniquely musical family.  His mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, was a former professional dancer with the Martha Graham Company and taught dance throughout his childhood.  His father, Woody Guthrie, was America’s most prolific and best-known folk-protest singer and the composer of innumerable songs, including “This Land Is Your Land.”

Guthrie made his most indelible mark in 1967 with “Alice’s Restaurant‘s Massacree,” an eighteen-minute shaggy-dog story loosely patterned after his father’s talking-blues style.   An instant counterculture favorite, the real-life events described in the song served as the basis for the 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant, in which Guthrie starred as himself.  Although he continued to record major-label albums through 1981, his only other radio hit was his 1972 recording of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”

Since 1991 Guthrie has occupied himself increasingly with the Guthrie Center, a non-profit “interfaith church foundation” dedicated to various forms of social activism, such as caring for AIDS patients and raising awareness about Huntington’s Disease, the degenerative disorder from which his father died.  A practicing Catholic during much of the 1970s, Guthrie eventually became a follower of the Kali Yatha Yoga master Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati.

Musical Career:
Given his status as the eldest son of Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie could have carved out a comfortable musical niche for himself simply by covering his father’s songs or by composing in his father’s well-known folk-protest style.  Instead, from his instantly recognizable nasal voice and his charmingly quirky sense of humor to his ear for catchy melodies and his intimate familiarity with folk songs from many traditions, he established himself from the outset as a singer-songwriter in his own right.  Not that he had nothing in common with his father.  Besides covering Woody’s “Oklahoma Hills” on Running Down the Road, “1913 Massacre” on Hobo’s Lullaby, and “Ramblin’ Round” on Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, Guthrie also wrote protest songs of his own that, if similar in spirit to his father’s Dust Bowl classics, were clearly a response to the specific socio-political crises of the 1960s and 1970s.           

Alice's Restaurant.  With “Alice’s Restaurant’s Massacree” comprising all of Side One, this 1967 album made Guthrie an instant counter-cultural celebrity.   Its length aside, what distinguished Guthrie’s eighteen-minute story-song from the rest of the anti-war-music pack was his comic timing, a quality generally lacking in the protest music of any era.      

The Best of Arlo GuthrieReleased ten years after Guthrie’s debut, this compilation suffered from the restrictions of the twelve-inch vinyl LP.  That “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” would make the cut was obvious, as was the inclusion of “The Motorcycle Song” (in its six-minute version) and Guthrie’s 1972 hit “City of New Orleans.”  The challenge was to condense the best of the rest of Guthrie’s first eight albums into the remaining twenty minutes.  Predictably, the result was spotty, with two songs from Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys and one apiece from Running Down the Road, Washington County, Arlo Guthrie, and Amigo.    

Outlasting the Blues.  When this album appeared in the fall of 1979, it was frequently discussed in conjunction with Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Van Morrison’s Into the Music, albums that, like this album’s first side, drew on biblical or gospel imagery.  The specific reason for Guthrie’s religious focus was that he was on the verge of learning whether he, like his father, would succumb to Huntington’s Disease.  (The eventual diagnosis was that he would not.)  Understandably, his own mortality was on his mind, and, rather than indulging in morbid self-pity, he composed a suite of songs that served as an examination of his life and its significance and included references to his 1960s status as a protest hero, his Jewish roots, his conversion to Catholicism, and his marriage.  Side Two, although less thematically coherent, consisted of songs of equally high quality, making the album one of Guthrie’s strongest.        

Power Of Love.  Compared to the serious tone of Outlasting the Blues, this 1981 follow-up, Guthrie’s last album for Warner Brothers, struck many as especially lightweight.  At least one song, however, the T Bone Burnett-composed title cut, continued Guthrie’s recording of music with Christian themes.       

Someday.  This was in many ways a typical Arlo Guthrie album, replete with humor, political protest, and catchy melodies.  By 1986, however, the Guthrie formula was considered passé, and Warner Brothers refused to release the album, leaving it to Guthrie to release it himself on his own Rising Son label in the early 1990s.   

All Over the World.  In 1991, ten years after his last Warner Brothers album, Guthrie had  finally acquired the rights to enough of his catalogue to assemble this thirteen-song  compilation, which, except for its re-inclusion of “City of New Orleans,” made an ideal complement to The Best of Arlo Guthrie.     

Musical Legacy: 
Since Guthrie emerged as a solo performer in 1967, two phrases have always appeared in discussions of his music: “Woody Guthrie’s son” and “Alice’s Restaurant.”  The former has given even the slightest of Guthrie’s recordings an aura of folkloric authenticity, of being connected to the centuries-old troubadour tradition in which Woody Guthrie himself was a link.  The latter serves as a reminder of the role that storytelling, wit, and cheering for society’s underdogs has played in Guthrie’s most enduring music.

Whether that music will live on in the repertoires of subsequent folk singers remains to be seen.  Even the perennially popular “Alice’s Restaurant” and “The Motorcycle Song” are so autobiographical that it’s difficult to imagine anyone besides Guthrie performing them.  But, as long as there are pretensions, there will be songwriters who want to puncture them so effectively that they never re-inflate, inspired by the example of Guthrie’s preference for the satirical slice over the sledgehammer blow.

Further Reading 
Guthrie, Arlo.  This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book.  New York:  Amsco, 1969.  The words and music to twenty early Guthrie songs, illustrated with photos of Guthrie’s family and memorabilia.

Lee, Laura.  Arlo, Alice and Anglicans: The Lives of a New England Church.  Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2000.  A history of the Trinity Church, the setting of “Alice’s Restaurant” and the current home of his interfaith Guthrie Center. 

Orteza, Arsenio.  “Arlo and Ma,” The Christian Century (May 5, 1993).  An examination of Guthrie’s spiritual journey from Catholicism to Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati.

Simon, John.  “The Youth Film,” Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967-1970.  New York: Delta, 1971.  Contains an acute review of the film Alice’s Restaurant.

Unterberger, Richie.  Turn, Turn, Turn: The ’60s Folk-Rock Revolution.  Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002.  Traces the role of folk music in the evolution of rock and roll with Guthrie among the interviewed musicians.